Preparation can reduce dangers of cold weather

When below-freezing temperatures return to the region this week, area residents should take proper precautions to protect their health.

Dressing for the weather, anticipating time spent outdoors and having supplies ready in case of an emergency are all preparations that can help prevent against weather-related health issues, said Charles Devine III, health director of the Lord Fairfax Health District, which serves the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

“The issue is how rapidly you’re losing heat, and cold of course makes you lose heat quickly,” Devine said. “When the wind is blowing, you are losing heat faster.”

Wind chill adds to the effects that outdoor conditions can have on humans and animals, while the Weather Channel’s FeelsLike indicator and AccuWeather’s RealFeel include additional factors like humidity, precipitation intensity or type and elevation.

If the wind chill and RealFeel are lower than the temperature, then the danger will be greater to individuals facing the elements, Devine said.

The main danger to people and animals in cold weather conditions is hypothermia, which Devine said happens when the body loses heat faster than it generates.

“What you want to do is limit your time outdoors,” he said.

Signs of hypothermia include excessive shivering, shaking hands, confusion and drowsiness. In infants, look for low energy levels and bright red skin or skin that feels cold. If body temperature is below 95 degrees at any age, seek immediate medical attention.

Cold weather precautions also apply to animals, said Cheryl Wakeman, animal caretaker at the Shenandoah County Humane Society.

“They can really face the same type of dangers as people,” she said.

Fur offers cats and dogs some protection, but as Devine pointed out, animals can’t layer on more warmth like humans can do in extremely cold conditions.

Instead, Wakeman said, animals burrow to find warmth. Pets should be inside during cold conditions, but if they must be outside, a shelter can provide cover and warmth from the elements.

An animal shelter should have dry, clean bedding like chipping used for chickens, she said. Blankets can be used as long as they’re kept dry and changed with consistency.

“It’s kind of the same thing with people,” Wakeman said. “If it’s cold to a person, it’s going to be cold to the dogs and cats.”

Warm weather clothing also should be exchanged for dry clothing if it becomes wet outside.

Once inside, Devine said, “Make sure your heating systems are up to snuff and aren’t going to fail on you.”

Space heaters, wood stoves and fireplaces should not be left unattended, and he said all homes with fuel-burning sources should have a working carbon monoxide detector, since even stoves and chimneys cleaned regularly can produce carbon monoxide.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com